The family of a man who was shot and killed by Honolulu Police last year is suing the city for use of excessive force.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said at the time that officers shot 26-year-old Kyle Thomas after he drove his vehicle toward them during a shoplifting investigation.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday challenges that narrative.

According to the plaintiff’s account, Thomas was shopping at Walmart in Mililani with his girlfriend and a friend on Feb. 20, 2019. On their way out, Thomas was stopped at a traffic light when several unmarked vehicles surrounded his car.

At that point, plainclothes officers approached the driver and passenger sides of Thomas’s vehicle. The officers were off duty at the time and didn’t announce they were police officers, according to the complaint. Ballard has previously said that the officers did identify themselves as police.

Although Thomas, his girlfriend and his friend didn’t know they were cops, the complaint says, they put their hands in the air when the officers ordered them to do so. As they were complying, an officer shot Thomas, killing him, the lawsuit says.

Honolulu Police Department patch.
Honolulu police say an internal investigation into Kyle Thomas’s case is ongoing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

At the time of the shooting, Thomas “posed no immediate threat of death or serious physical injury” to the officers, according to the lawsuit. The car was at a “complete stop,” and the occupants of the car were compliant with the officers’ demands. No one was brandishing a weapon of any kind or making verbal or physical gestures or threats, the complaint states, and they had not committed any crime.

After Thomas was shot, his friend crouched down under the dashboard to apply pressure to his right leg, the lawsuit says. However, Thomas’s right foot was on the gas pedal, so the car moved forward. The vehicle stopped when it hit a tree on the opposite side of the street, the complaint says.

Thomas was pronounced dead at the scene while his friend and girlfriend were taken to a local hospital with life-threatening injuries, according to the lawsuit.

“What we’ve been told is the first shot that was fired which was the fatal shot was fired before the car moved,” Eric Seitz, an attorney for Thomas’ family, told Hawaii News Now. “Mr. Thomas was in the process of holding his hand in view and the police officer came up and shot him.”

His family is alleging HPD used excessive force, wrongfully attempted to arrest him, and violated his due process rights.

“The use of deadly force upon Mr. Thomas was excessive and unreasonable,” the suit says. “The Plainclothes Officer Defendants did not give a verbal warning that deadly force would be used and there were other reasonable options available to them other than shooting and killing Mr. Thomas.”

The suit also argues that the police department has systemic flaws including:

  • Employing officers who the city “reasonably should have known had dangerous propensities for abusing their authority and for mistreating citizens;”
  • Inadequately supervising, training and disciplining officers who are inclined to abuse their authority; and
  • Failing to institute appropriate policies and adequately train officers in the use of force.

“By perpetuating, sanctioning, tolerating, and ratifying outrageous conduct and other wrongful acts, Supervisor Defendants acted with an intentional, reckless, and callous disregard for the life and constitutional rights of persons similarly situated to Mr. Thomas,” the lawsuit says. “The actions of Supervisor Defendants were willful, wanton, oppressive, malicious, fraudulent, and unconscionable to any person of normal sensibilities.”

Sarah Yoro, an HPD spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nearly a year and a half after Thomas’s death, the department told Hawaii News Now that an internal investigation is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, a committee is reviewing HPD’s use of force policy and will present recommendations to the police union and the chief within the next several weeks, members of the Honolulu Police Commission said at a Wednesday meeting.

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